January 6, 2013

Elk, a question of identity

They say that Cap Saint-Ignace was where the last wild elk in Quebec died. That was between 1830-40. It is said that the last Eastern Elk was shot in Pennsylvania in 1877 and officially extinct in 1880. All this due to over hunting.

  Presently, in Quebec, there only exists farmed elk, which is sold mainly for its antlers, then canned hunting and then for its meat. Next to no elk farmer in Quebec will or has made a living off of selling only the meat. The main reason and boom for elk farming (perhaps unfortunately) was the Asian market for the velvet antlers which ranks number two to ginseng in importance in traditional Chinese medicine. Big money. Most elk farmers who specialized in velvet antler made a living without needing a second income. That was prior to the year 2000 marked by a string of mad cow disease, all that encephalopathy freaky spongiform suffering stuff and the spread of the disease in elk and deer on the west coast. Borders closed, markets slowed, velvet in the Asian market became suspect.  

Renard Artisan Bistro used to work with Wapitis Val Grand Bois. They sold and went into retirement. Sad. I called another farm from the Association des Éleveurs de Wapitis du Québec (Certified pure blood elk), Gaston Bouchard asking for elk meat and he replied "non," laughing " il y a trop d'argent a faire..." Sarcastically saying there was too much money to be made in elk farming. Ok. There was obviously something strange here. Another producer I had stayed with a couple years back in St-Charles Garnier on my way to Gaspesie had also sold. Another 'farmer' told me that he did not really care about the meat and if I wanted to deal with it to call the abattoir, his main income being, antlers aka pills. I recently found myself in the fields with Lucien and Jocelyne of Ferme les Wapitis des Beaux Pres in Aston-Jonction talking about why is elk more expensive than other meats, and why everyone is struggling to sustain their living. 

Almost 18 years in the elk trade, original founders of the Association des Éleveurs de Wapitis du Québec begun in order to protect the industry of pure bred elk from those who were crossing deer and elk and selling at elk prices, (the buying price of elk being 6 to 8 times higher than deer usually), and still struggling to make ends meet but happy. Caring. Working in a system much dominated by chicken, pork, beef...all subsidized by the government? The protection of quotas? More questions. They grew up in the North, as in a 15 hour drive up into the tundra, used to eating caribou meat. When they returned back 'south' they approached the MAPAQ asking about caribou farming. 'Farming!? What you need is a zoo permit! Find another animal." they were told and so elk it was.    

The Beaupre family are a couple who have had 8 children and are happy; humble and happy to share. Something I struggle everyday to appreciate, attain, and keep within my own circles. Nonetheless, their story is one of beauty, struggling to keep their elk farm in existence, working in the four corners of Canada, a family living apart, living together, almost living at the edge of the modern industrial world, poised perfectly at that junction where most of us ask the most important questions of ourselves and our community. In a society where intensive industrial farming is the norm and will not change anytime soon, it is possibl watching elk in their vast space, observing their behaviour, that something will be lost when it is replaced by steel and concrete walls. It is not a question of the pumped up, fucked up, legless battery chicken because there are so many poor people to feed, because rich people are buying the same birds, it is a more a question of norms established, reasons behind them and government regulations. Many more questions.

When cheapness should not dictate out better judgement, the fact is that almost everybody wants things inexpensive, especially food. We should all remind ourselves (because we are modern and educated) that with cheapness comes a price, hidden but everpresent. Elk meat for the moment is marginal, not very subsidized, meaning that it will definitely be more expensive (or as some would say representing the true cost of living), meaning you won't see it on any fast food restaurant any time soon... but on Renard's menu it has become a must, and most probably because of its relation and natural voice in what many have called the slow food movement. And again another question arises, would we ever want to see elks bear the same burden as the so called modern cows, pigs and chickens? And yet the big market for elk is for its antlers and not the meat....and yes,again,  so many more questions.....